July 24, 2011

How to Be Creative: Moodle

I took Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write from my bookshelf the other day.  I don't think I can ever become an e-book reader with my penchant for paper.  My paperback copy, from Graywolf Press, 1987, is a worn blue reminiscent of tile borders, framing the yellow ivory front cover. The glue of the binding is getting brittle with age, someday I might open this book and it will snap into sections, and pages that I have lined with a yellow marker will fall out.

There are two photographs of the author just inside the cover, one in 1938 as a young woman and the other in 1983 as a old woman.  In the second photograph, Ueland's decorous image has changed to one much more flamboyant. Instead of a solid color blazer, hers has wide vertical stripes.  Her hair is no longer neat and carefully combed.  Her gaze no longer pensive but direct.  I like to think aging is a process of throwing off convention and others expectations to become more oneself.

Today, I notice Chapter IV: The Imagination Works Slowly and Quietly.  She explains what creative power is and how to use it.   Be idle, she says.    

Of imagination, she writes, "...memory and erudition can smother it very easily," and "...smart, energetic, do-it-now, pushing people so often say: 'I am not creative.'  They are, but they should be idle, limp, and alone for much of the time, as lazy as men fishing on a levee, and quietly looking and thinking, not willing all the time. This quiet looking and thinking is the imagination; it is letting in ideas."

Moodling, she calls it.  It is the idle time similar to the play of children, without anxiety or pressure to make something meaningful. It is not using the leisure time to smoke or drink or find endless distractions, but to simply dream. Leave off "measuring, comparing, cautioning, advising prudence, warning against mistakes...anxious doubts"  in favor of wandering and searching. Take long walks. Don't be too busy.  It's slow work, as Ueland says.

My mother, who spoke English as a second language, used to call social events "doings."  This too can become consuming.  I used to be so busy with doings.   I used to have not one but two jobs. 

The photographic images of young writer and old writer remind me of the final destination of each of us: mortality. Life is so brief. We have limited time to do creative work. Why put off a poem or a story until you're done with work, mown the lawn, cleaned the house? Why wait until you've saved more money, retired?  Where is the end point of all that busy-ness?

It's a paradox. In order to be productive creatively, you need to give yourself time off. In order to do that, you have to get off the treadmill, avoid debt, re-examine your ambition. Do you really need a larger house or more things? Do you really want to take on more responsibility, work so many hours, if it takes you away from your creative work? 

Throughout my life, because I was not wealthy, I thought that one could either have time or money, but not both. I took some leaves of absence, for time, but went back to work.  Right now, I've elected time. Before I am like the photograph of an old woman, I've chosen to step away from all "the getting and doing" in order to be in my studio, where like the men fishing on the levee, I will be moodling.

July 3, 2011

The Umbrella and the Piano

Story telling is critical for every culture.  It links person to person, group to group, culture to culture.  It links seemingly disparate things.  Stories can heal us.   According to Judith Herrmann in her book Trauma and Recovery, telling the story to the community and having the community hear the story helps people cope.

Poetry not only tells a story, but also wields image, metaphor and pattern in the telling.  This creates a very powerful tool of transformation. D.H. Lawrence, in an introduction to Harry Crosby's Chariot of the Sun, writes:

"The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and ‘discovers' a new world within the known world. Man, and the animals, and the flower, all live within a strange and forever surging chaos. The chaos which we have got used to, we call a cosmos. The unspeakable inner chaos of which we are composed we call consciousness, and mind, and even civilization. But it is, ultimately, chaos, lit up by visions. Just as the rainbow may or may not light up the storm. And, like the rainbow, the vision perisheth."

He goes on to say, "Man must wrap himself in a vision, make a house of apparent form and stability, fixity. In his terror of chaos, he begins by putting up an umbrella between himself and the everlasting chaos."

Lawrence gives the reader an image: an umbrella, our vision.  A version of reality.  So flimsy, a hard wind will turn it inside out and break its spines.  We can turn it into shelter, plaster its ceiling, paint it, use it as architecture, a space to live in. So circumscribed, we eventually mistake it for the universe, until somebody damages the fragile thing. 

"Then comes a poet, enemy of convention, and makes a slit in the umbrella; and lo! the glimpse of chaos is a vision, a window to the sun."

Even a little research does indicate that many poets are the enemy of convention.  Convention can be positive; but it is artificial and eventually oppressive.  It's a made thing that is imposed on life.  As a genre, poetry embraces both chaos and order.  Loss and love.  Maybe poets remind us there is not one thing without the other.  

Perhaps the sun, a swirling orb of burning gases destructive and essential, is an apt image of chaos.  It blinds us with its harsh brilliance and makes things grow. An umbrella offers protection, some shade, a story we tell ourselves.  The umbrella reminded me of this poem he wrote:

by D.H. Lawrence
Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;   
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see   
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings   
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.   
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong   
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside   
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.   
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour   
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour 
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast   
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past. 

Lawrence sat beneath the piano as his mother played, and later as an older man yearns for that beautiful ceiling of sound, the splendor and thunder. It is a magnificent umbrella.

One moment suddenly cracks open flood of loss.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "There is a crack in everything God has made." A crack in everything, Leonard Cohen said, is how the light gets in.  Lawrence refers to poets themselves as people who will break convention, make a slit in the umbrella, break illusions.  Of course, not just poets do this.  Damage is done in many ways, by many people.  Poets recreate another vision, offer a new umbrella.

Story-telling is one of the best responses we have to the chaos of the universe.  One story won't explain it; I believe it is a joint and communal task to tell stories.  It makes sense that one story can not carry us, that the story needs to change each time we catch a glimpse of what's out there, in that moment between when our ceiling cracks and falls and we rebuild it, when the chaos inside us sees the one outside.

Between those two things, maybe it is wise to focus attention on the beautiful fresco.  Build a fine instrument, have a beautiful song, make a new world.  Let's make a lot of umbrellas, even though they won't last.   Nothing does.  

Read Lawrence's Introduction here